Uncovering Food Insecurity Among College Students, a Tricky Population

It’s a cold December day in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Soft snowflakes fall quietly from the sky marking the end of an unseasonably warm fall. On the campus of Eastern Michigan University, students fight their way through the cold, barely glancing up to see if any obstacles block their path. Some of these swift passersby’s may be heading to Swoop’s, a food pantry located in a nearby university building. Haley Moraniec, social worker and graduate of Eastern Michigan University, started this on campus food bank back in September of 2015. Inside, shelves are stacked high with canned goods, boxes of cereal and pasta. Three fridges containing fresh produce, meat and dairy products line the wall. Red peppers, Greek yogurt, eggs, and even an entire ham are among the selection. All of this is free to students. Moraniec’s intention in creating this pantry was to alleviate the burdens students face in terms of food access on her home campus. Considering how diverse Eastern’s student population is, Moraniec says that “this is something that our students can greatly benefit from. It’s a small part in the fight for food justice.”

Colleges all across the United States enroll students facing food insecurity, or unequal access to nutritious food due to financial barriers. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab, an institution dedicated to studying the issues associated with college affordability, recently released a data briefing that detailed their results from a 2015 study. The lab surveyed 1,007 low- and moderate-income students at ten Wisconsin colleges and universities. They found that 61 percent were food insecure at some point during the school year. The report also states that 42 percent of respondents said that they cut or skipped meals because they did not have adequate funds. Thirty percent stated that they were hungry but could not afford to eat because they lacked the financial means.

What is even more striking is that according to Sonal Chauhan, Associate Director of Membership and Outreach at the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), “the typical food insecure student is working part-time, receives financial aid, and is reaching out for assistance from aid programs – and is still struggling to get by.” Without the proper resources on college campuses, students stretch what money they have to cover the costs of their education, living expenses and food. She says, “Studies, including our own recent report, show that a significant percentage of college clients choose between educational expenses, like tuition, textbooks, and rent, versus food.”

The choice between allocating funds to food or to educational resources places an unnecessary burden onto students. “It’s hard to concentrate in class or focus on your studies when you’re hungry or worrying about where your next meal will come from,” says Chauhan. In extreme cases, food insecurity can force students to take time off from school or discontinue their education entirely.

Anthony Hernandez, a graduate student working in the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, reinforced Chauhan’s statement about the hardships food insecure students suffer. He put it simply, student success is negatively impacted when they don’t have their basic needs met. And those who are susceptible to food insecurity are not just students receiving financial aid. “There are other important factors to consider like students who have medical care costs and may not be covered in areas where they attend school,” says Hernandez. Also, with tuition raising faster than inflation, even financially secure students may be at risk.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) releases an annual report on food insecurity at the national level. Their 2015 findings report that 12.7 percent of American households are food insecure. Yet, according to Alisha Coleman-Jensen, sociologist at the Economic Research Service of the USDA, nationally representative statistics about college food insecurity are very difficult to capture. As students are often considered part of their parent’s households they are viewed as one unit, even if their food situation may vary greatly from when they are at home to when they are at school. “It’s difficult to derive a statistic for college students and say it is representative for all students,” says Coleman-Jensen, “especially when the age and demographic makeup vary a lot between commuter schools and universities with a more on-campus population.”

Smaller scale studies of food insecurity can also prove difficult for researchers. Elena Huisman, graduate of the University of Michigan with a Masters Degree in Environmental Policy, Planning and Environmental Justice, surveyed 300 plus students at 29 universities in 2014 and found that 24 percent of them were food insecure. This is significantly lower than other studies, but Huisman says that her results may have been skewed because distribution may not have been representative of the entire campus. Huisman also recognizes how unique college populations are in terms of their living situations. From freshmen living in dorms, to seniors living off campus, Huisman says “there are so many different situations found in the college atmosphere that makes determining food access very difficult.” Even with lower results, her recommendations still call for action from universities to erase the stigma associated with food insecurity and streamline existing initiatives alleviating student hardships.

As an example of one of these initiatives, Swoop’s Food Pantry  has been highly successful in the past year, experiencing over a thousand visits composed of almost 500 unique individuals. According to Moraniec, the pantry has received praise for their food assistance efforts as well as becoming a centralized resource for those experiencing other issues like housing instability or domestic violence. The dialogue it has created is very important for campus, says Moraniec. Especially when, she says, “people always ask, well if you can afford college tuition why can’t you afford food?”  The reality is that many students can’t afford food, and they are required to take out loans to pay for their degree. Swoop’s and other food pantries across the country are challenging the conventional food system, while giving students more choice and stability.

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Selection of dry goods at Swoop’s Food Pantry

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